The destruction of Islamic State's caliphate will not stop Iraq from fracturing

The beginning of the campaign to eradicate the Islamic State group's presence in Mosul has been defined by American policymakers as the key battle against the terrorist organisation. In his surprise visit to Iraq, vice-president Joe Biden's was in no doubt of the significance of the military operation to recapture the city. "It’s real, serious, and it’s committed,” Biden said of the ongoing Mosul strategy, “and so I’m very optimistic.” This optimism was echoed by Barack Obama who stated in a recent interview with CBS News that the "expectation is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall."

Raqqa and Mosul, the citadels of IS in Syria and Iraq, have been the prime targets for Western policymakers and there is a belief amongst many that the fall of each city will herald the terrorist group's defeat in a belated final battle. These expectations are deeply flawed. It will take years to uproot IS and affiliated jihadists groups from Iraq and Syria and the fresh outbreak of hostilities between the opposition (including Jahbat al-Nusra and The Islamic Front) and Bashar al-Assad's military in northern Syria only strengthens IS and prolongs its stay in Syria where its power and influence is greatest.

From there it can penetrate Iraq's porous borders, launch vicious attacks against military and civilian targets in cities and towns across the state and exploit divisions between the coalition assembled against it. This has been demonstrated by IS quite efficiently in the form of mass-suicide attacks across Iraq most notably  HillaIskanderiyah, and the numerous bombings which hit the capital city Baghdad on a weekly basis. The destruction of IS's caliphate by conventional warfare will succeed only in changing the dynamics of conflict in Iraq. The fact that IS will not survive as a state should not come as a surprise, nor should its demise be regarded as a new phenomenon as John Jenkins highlights:  "nothing Da’esh does is individually new. We’ve seen theatrical brutality before. We’ve seen claims to resurrect the caliphate before: by one count, 19 jihadi proto-states (mostly short-lived) between 1989 and 2015." The eradication of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's vision and Baghdadi's caliphate will not be a unique phenomenon and IS will continue to have the capacity to carry a local and regional threat while conducting covert operations in Europe. Coalition air-strikes will have a limited impact against urban and asymmetrical warfare.

The Iraqi Civil War is far more than the war against IS, one piece of a wider conflict, and the assortment of factions fighting for Mosul will utilise the opportunity in the war against the group to carve out their political agendas. This has already created division and an immensely complex war. 

The Kurds, a crucial ally in the war against IS, have hardly concealed their ambitions. The United Kingdom have contributed heavy machine guns, half-a-million rounds of ammunition, non-lethal military equipment including body armour, helmets and ration packs while Germany, according to The American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, has  already equipped Kurdish troops in northern Iraq with over 8,000 pistols, 8,000 Assault  Rifles, 10,000 hand grenades and over 200 anti-tank weapons with millions of rounds of ammunition. These armaments have been enlarged by the United States, Czech Republic, Albania, and Italy.

Bolstered by Western support, the Kurdish guerrilla, to some extent, contained and pushed back IS. However the simplified stories of the heroism of Kurdish fighters holding out against the faceless evil of IS has distorted the reality of the conflict. Kurdish advances  have been accompanied by a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions of Sunni Arabs in northern Iraq by ethno-nationalists, separatist movements and militant groups. The narrative of terrorism, the grotesque snuff videos produced by IS and the violent nature of its insurgency combined with the West's fascination with the organisation's ferocity has significantly contributed to Western politicians overlooking the military conduct and alleged war crimes of Kurdish militant groups such as the PKK.

Turkey's repeated aerial bombardment of Kurdish positions in northern Iraq have illustrated Erdogan's intentions to fold Kurdish advances and its national project while internal conflicts between the Iraqi government's loose alliance have emerged as Shiite militias have been in intermittent conflict with peshmerga forces, as illustrated recently by a firefight in Tuz Khormatu in late April. The disunity amongst the local coalition fighting IS will only strengthen the latter's resolve while the American re-intervention in Iraqi affairs through a covert counterterrorism strategy against IS, by channelling equipment, weapons and intelligence into the peshmerga, militias, sects and tribes opposed to IS means the Obama administration's current strategy reinforces the cycle of violence in Iraq. This will pave the way for future sectarian, ethno-nationalist, and tribal conflict. The question of Kurdistan is far from complete and its war with Turkey and local Iraqi factions vying for power will feature heavily in the future of Iraqi state.

Political gridlock in Baghdad has only aggravated the situation. The dramatic storming of the Iraqi parliament and Baghdad's Green Zone by Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters in April after his denunciation of the political class for failing to reform the political quota system plagued by deep-seated corruption demonstrates that Iraq has a long way to go before it achieves a semblance of stability.

The non-violent mini revolution (30 April) which occurred is significant. It shows that Western policymakers and media have largely viewed the Iraqi Civil War through the lens of the war on terror and sectarian violence. The disproportionate focus of the Obama administration on IS's operations and the prioritisation of pursuing the terrorist group has not addressed the roots of Iraq's violence, nor has it effectively solved political divisions in Baghdad. 

In the current atmosphere of bottom-up politics created by the Arab revolutions and counter-revolutions (2010 - current), the state is experiencing a series of revolutionary convulsions which have been occurring since the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003. The storming of the Iraqi Parliament, the declaration of a state emergency, the departure of numerous Iraqi politicians and their families, and the largely non-violent nature of the protests which have culminated in the occupation of Green Zone demonstrate that the Iraqi conflict cuts deeper than the sectarian and terrorist narratives spoon-fed to us by politicians and mainstream media. 

As Martin Chulov wrote in February, "Across all levels of society, a realisation is sinking in that Iraq is now entering a phase that could prove every bit as destabilising - perhaps even more so - than the war against IS." IS fight through a vicious sectarian narrative of war slaughtering Shiites, Yazidis, Kurds and Christians indiscriminately in the hope of provoking the groups into conducting pogroms against Sunni civilians. Such acts reinforce the perception amongst numerous Sunni tribes and communities that seceding from the central government, joining IS and forming alternative forms of political control will suit their interests. 

However political grievances are not the only force in Iraqi society driving conflict. Iraq is in the midst of  socio-economic collapse. The inefficiency of state and grass-roots political economy moulded by instability and which has existed since the Iran-Iraq war (1980 - 1988) has created a black-market meritocracy and an oil-dependent economy the latter of which according to the finance minister Hoshyar Zebari, accounts for 93-95% of all revenues.  This system has flourished as well as Iraq's dependence on oil to hold up its economy and the collapse of oil prices in 2015 have only added to the woes of Iraq's socio-economic predicament where there is no democracy, power shortages, and dire water shortages

Corruption, a major source of frustration amongst Iraqi civilians, has been a catalyst for major protests across Iraq since 2013. The deterioration of the ISF since 2014 illustrates how rampant it has become. The United States spent over $20 billion on the Iraqi Security Forces from the 2003 invasion until U.S troops withdrew at the end of 2011. However the seizure of Mosul was a military catastrophe for the ISF and as General Babakir Zebari conceded, the issue of ghost soldiers lay at the heart of the matter. According to Zebari '30,000 ghost soldiers existed in Iraq's military and...corrupt officers were pocketing their salaries. The fall of Mosul in 2014 was in part blamed on there being far fewer soldiers in position to defend the city than there were on the books.' A senior Iraqi officer went into further detail:  

“The first kind: each officer is allowed, for example, five guards. He’ll keep two, send three home and pocket their salary or an agreed percentage.Then the second and bigger group is at the brigade level. A brigade commander usually has 30, 40 or more soldiers who stay at home or don’t exist. The problem is that he too, to keep his job as a brigade commander, has to bribe his own hierarchical superiors with huge amounts of money.” 

With an army buckling under corruption and unable to fight effectively, billions of dollars which were meant to invested in infrastructure, fighting terror groups, and economic projects being funnelled into political patronage and the political elite of SCIRI and the Islamic Dawa Party, it is unsurprising that Iraq has been conditioned for revolutionary upheaval and instability.

The ascension of al-Sadr and his call for reforms have boosted his popularity, while his charismatic persona has drawn hundred of thousands, if not millions to his cause. Despite al-Sadr bearing a heavy responsibility for facilitating pogroms against Sunni civilians during the Iraq War (2003 - 2011) with the Mahdi militia and death squads, he has since 'reinvented himself as a reform champion.'

In spite of al-Sadr's popularity, the occupation of the Green Zone has demonstrated that the divisions in Shiite politics have not disappeared. This class-struggle has existed since the 1990s where underclass Sadrist militants who belonged to a generation deeply fashioned by American sanctions in 1990s, its subsequent occupation and the socio-economic destruction of Iraq have been in confrontation with conservative, formerly exiled Islamist parties and urbanised elites. The splits which exist between the various Shiite militias propping up the ISF and the regime will stall military operations and cohesion against IS.

However this is not to say IS does not have its own problems. The label of a 'Sunni' insurgency championed by IS is deceptive. The insurgency against the American occupation and the Shiite-dominated government is ideologically split between secular Ba'athist loyalists of the former regime, nationalist Islamists, Iraqi Salafists, specific Sunni tribal groups (not all), and jihadists groups such as IS. Each group will, like the Shiites, have specific local, regional and political agendas which is likely to cause political infighting and violent conflict. As Hugh Roberts argues 'while (IS) is confronting the new Shiite regime in Baghdad' as did 'Jabhat al-Nusra and others in Syria. Such jihadis rarely if ever have a notion of how to replace the state they are fighting' and usually turn on each other, as exemplified by intra-jihadist violence in Afghanistan, Yemen,  and Syria. A weakened IS will make it easier to defeat, however the long-term prospect of containing and managing a jihadist civil war paints a potentially grim picture for central government security prospects. 

The sheer variety and diversity of political actors operating makes partition preferable for some policymakers. The brutality of the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars have left outsiders sceptical that the notion of power-sharing between various rivals can be achieved. Partition is a short-term solution which will ease violence and contain the conflicts.  However it will produce immense implications for the geo-political balance of the region.

The current Arab revolutions and authoritarian counter-revolutions across the Middle East such as Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya, divided between secularists, Arab nationalists, Ba'athists, Islamists, Kurds and jihadists violently contesting the future of their countries are not united. Iraq, as both the intra-Shiite class conflict, the Kurds de-facto establishment of a mini-state and the fragmented nature of the 'Sunni' insurgency illustrate that the state has had similar divisions over the nation's course since 2003.

The collision of emerging grass-roots revolutionary narratives and violence in Iraqi politics, a legacy of draconian authoritarianism under Saddam and catalysed by U.S military confrontation, occupation and sanctions, with that of the top-down radical enterprise which encompassed the Bush Doctrine offer a new paradigm through which to view violence in Iraq. American policymakers, by removing Saddam, inadvertently acted as the mechanism which enabled a revolution in Iraqi politics. This had been developing in the 1990s and early 2000s as a prototype of, and bearing similar features to, the current upheaval and violence across the Arab Middle East.  Part of this revolution occurred under occupation and bears its own unique features including timing (2003 as supposed to 2010), the role of U.S policymakers in post-Saddam Iraq and the nature of the Iraqi insurgents. The consequences of the Iraq war are still being felt and the potential dismantlement/weakening of the puppet regime in Baghdad in recent days and the ascension of a Shiite civil conflict represents another phase in Iraq's revolution and how it will be defined as a future nation. 

In such an atmosphere, IS will flourish and exploit the political chaos and divisions between the various factions contesting power in the fractured state. If it is defeated as a state, IS will respond by reverting to what it was before when it was led by Zarqawi as Al-Qa'ida in Iraq; an insurgency and a terror group still capable of horrifying violence. In this form it will be around for years with covert outside support from powerful private donors, supported by its bases in Syria, fuelled by the long-standing war economy in Iraq and the trickle of foreign fighters from North Africa and Europe, and will most certainly continue to have the capacity to shape regional and local geo-politics. Territorial caliphate or not, IS will remain a major actor in Iraq's political conflict and Iraq's Arab Spring. 

Matthew Williams